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Korby's Corner...When having less means more

Entering seventh grade in Cloquet, I remember having a life-changing conversation with my parents at the kitchen table.

Play tackle football, or be a wimp.

While my dad, an all-Polar League running back for Floodwood, urged me strap on the pads and play, my mom, who was a majorette for the Polar Bears, thought otherwise.

Although I didn't join majorettes, I took my mom's side.

Still to this day, I think about what if I did play and took my favorite positions, as a running back or quarterback.

Or maybe play both ways. Offense and defense. And be the punter. And the kicker. And the captain during the coin toss.

It's quite common seeing that do-all spirit in 9-Man.

See, in a sport that requires 11 players on both sides of the ball, 9-Man was created to even the playing field for the smallest of schools. An Albert Einstein-like idea for the game.

Think about it. Reducing the required amount of players needed to form a legalized team is genius. I feel it keeps tiny programs alive and allows communities to shine.

And no community shines more in 9-Man more than, yes, Cromwell-Wright.

School enrollment in grades 9-12: 74 kids.

The Cardinals have been a dynasty in the small-town football world, winning state titles in 1995, 1996, 1998 and their most-recent coming in 2010 at the Metrodome.

Coached by Jeff Gronner since 2004, the physical education teacher has been to the state tournament nine times.

Some say 9-Man is a class of its own.

"I heard some coaches say it's a different game, and that just irritates me," Gronner said. "Some of the Xs and Os are a hair different, but it's still football we play out there."

Gronner, who took over coaching duties in Cromwell-Wright following legendary Keith Bergstedt, started as an assistant in the powerhouse program in 1998. As a student, he played 9-Man in Underwood, Minn., and moved on to college football at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn.

"I played both 9- and 11-man," Gronner said. "And I just love 9-Man football. I love being a part of the 9-Man game."

Gronner explained the sport has gone through some changes over time. He noted the field has always been slightly skinnier - 10 yards or so - than regulation fields, while in 1998, 9-Man fields were enlarged to the regulation 100 yards from its original 80-yard length.

"At the Dome, guys were scoring at the 10-yard line," Gronner recalled in the '90s. "A few things were different."

Despite some field accommodations to allow for fair-sized play, 9-Man offers some of the best football around the state.

Stephen-Argyle was a Minnesota powerhouse for years. The Cardinals are right up there too.

Around here, many local schools play 9-Man. On average, anywhere from 20-35 players are on the Cromwell-Wright roster each year.

"Some of those schools get 50 kids to come out and play," Gronner said. "It's a big event for some small communities."

Dave Foster, Gronner's longtime assistant and new Cromwell-Wright athletic director, said 9-Man is a big deal in town.

"It's our primary sport, people get fired up about it," Foster said. "The tradition has been set here and these kids come back year after year, looking to carry it on.

"If someone says this isn't football, well, they haven't been to a game," he continued. "It's still the same high school kids putting on the same gear and playing the same game."

And in Cromwell, people show up to watch.

With fans usually crowded around the concourse of the small field, press box and old bleachers, Cardinals football games are the best ticket in town. I've been there. It's worth the gas.

"For a school our size, we have a lot of fans with a lot of passion," Gronner said. "People understand the game. Friday night lights is special, but here in Cromwell-Wright, it's extra special."

"The community supports us well," Foster added. "Jeff and I are good friends who have fun coaching these kids. You don't have to pay me for it. I enjoy it every morning that I get up."

Now I wish I wasn't such a wimp in seventh grade.